Edible Business Trip: Joan Gussow Calls us Monks, Plugs Brooklyn and Kicks Off the Edible Institute

At the 2011 Edible Institute, a clear line could be drawn from the food-as-solution work of Joan Gussow (left) to Eagle Street Rooftop Farm's Annie Novak.

SANTA BARBARA–It was a trip well worthy the icy roads, airport delays, crummy hotel stays, and jetlag, because it was a balmy, sniffles-drying 75 degrees on the southern California waterfront where more than 70 Edible magazine publishers gathered for their annual powwow. And also because our guru Joan Gussow kicked off the event, the 2011 Edible Institute, calling the Edible magazines around the country “the monks of the middle ages, as people who are recording and saving what is sustainable and rational and loving—and delicious—from the catastrophes that are to come.”

Yes, Gussow played her “familiar Cassandra role”–which we profiled this past spring–listing the many ways in which the food system, “outside our food utopias of local eating,” was at risk of destroying us. But she also enticed the packed room, who had been supping on nose-to-tail tacos from Lilly’s on Chapala Street, with the vision of those things that now give this octogenarian hope.

“What really makes me hopeful is the existence of so many experiments on the ground now, all over the country,” she said, “everything from Growing Power in Milwaukee and farm revitalization in Detroit, to the restoration of an integrated food system in Hardwick, Vermont, and the Slow Money movement, finding ways to let us all invest in local agriculture and the food system across the country.”

“The entire borough of Brooklyn is now a cornucopia of scrumptious local foods winter and summer,” Gussow continued. “They’re even slaughtering pigs out there just the way they used to in the old days.  And people who used to confess with embarrassment that they lived in Brooklyn, now brag about it.  Moreover, nobody seems to be worrying anymore that in the cold months we’ll all face starvation or succumb to scurvy from lack of Vitamin C.” (Brooklynite Annie Novak, who will be interviewing Gussow at the 92Y tomorrow, was also in town to share her tales alongside urban farming pioneers from the West Coast and Midwest.)

Gussow praised Edible’s mandate to celebrate our food communities, but suggested this mandate should be broadened. “I do think you have the obligation while telling your readers of the glories of what they can eat where they live, to remind them gently from time to time that they need to look up from their plates and take some stands for economic and social justice.” (Gussow propped our recent story on holiday foods made by Citymeals-on-Wheels.)

“Keep pleasure in perspective,” Gussow seemed to advise this room of a who’s who from the food movement–correspondents were sent from CivilEats, Food Safety News, the Center for a Livable Future, Meatless Monday and Grist, food writers from the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register and the L.A. Times, and conference sponsors including St. Germaine, Verterra and Clif  Bar. “I feel the need to confess that I don’t quite feel as if I belong here,” Gussow said. “I fail as a foodie…What I am, as I have called myself for years, is a foodist.  That is, I’m a fan of food, especially locally produced food. I am perfectly content to eat in the most simply prepared way what comes off my land and off the farms of the people from whom I get my animal and grain products. I do not regularly seek out new food experiences—although I have had some spectacular ones.  But for most of my eating I simply relish the repetitive cycle of the seasons that brings me things like daily asparagus in the spring.”

Gussow has been running away from labels for decades now. She no longer calls herself a nutritionist–perhaps because she helped redefine and enlighten the entire field of nutrition. And she no longer calls herself an environmentalist–even though she helped show us all how food is an excellent gateway drug to serious environmental issues.

But for a self-declared non-foodie, Gussow sure knows how to paint a picture of a good meal. She left the entire room in smiles and giggles when she closed her talk with a passage from her new book, Growing Older, in which she describes the homegrown meal she prepared after a late September garden flooding episode from which she rescued figs and raspberries, brocolli and apples, and paired those with pasta, homemade pesto, and a beer. “Why does everybody laugh when I say, ‘opened a beer’?”

Gussow’s speech, a recap of other Edible Institute panels, as well as images from the local food and drink gala organized by Edible Santa Barbara will be available in the coming weeks at ediblecommunities.com.

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Brian is the editor of Edible East End, and co-publisher of Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan, and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and orchard, and keep ducks and oysters.